Sunday, April 29, 2007

Let it Shine

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 10:22-30

on April 29, 2007, (Senior Sunday) at Batesville Presbyterian Church

Our scripture this morning begins by pointing us toward the significance of a Jewish festival. John's gospel tells us: "At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem." Many of us are not familiar with Jewish festivals. I turned to wikipedia and learned this Jewish festival is now called Hanukkah. Hanukkah is celebrated during the winter around Christmas. Whereas we put lights on our Christmas trees, the Hanukkah ritual is to light a single candle each night for eight nights to celebrate the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through the ages. Jesus once said: "I am the light of the world." Perhaps he got this idea from observing the lighting of the eight candles during the celebration of Hanuakah.

In our scripture this morning, it was the season of Hanukkah, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. Jesus' opponents gathered around him and said to him, 'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.' Here is a question of identity. These are two of the most important questions for teenagers such as our graduates this morning. One of your tasks for the next four years, and indeed for the rest of your lifetime, is to determine who you are. According to our Biblical faith, our identity is revealed not so much by who we are as by whose we are. Like the Jewish people who celebrate Hanukah, we also are children of God not only by genetics by also by faith. All humans are made in the image and likeness of God and in that respect all human beings are children of God. We are children of God in that respect but also in a more radical way. We are part of God's family not only by genetics by also by choice. God has chosen us to be part of God's family and we have chosen to be part of God's family. So we are twice blessed, by birth and by choice. This is what we mean when we say we, along with the Jewish people, are members of God's covenant people.

Jesus' opponents demanded that he tell them whether he was the Messiah. The next step after discovering our identity as children of God is to express that identity through our words and actions. We can say we are God's people by the work that we do as well as by the words we say. Part of our Christian vocation is to discover, claim and express our identity as children of God.

It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. Our graduating seniors have been walking in the temple for some years now. They have been walking in the temple of this sanctuary, the temple of our youth house, and the temple of their own bodies. Young people, take good care of your temple. Your body is the temple of your soul so take good care of your soul's temple by taking good care of your body. Feed your body good food and give it plenty of rest as enough physical exercise to keep it toned up and ready for service. Jesus walked through the temple in Jerusalem and you are walking today in our version of the temple, this sanctuary here in Batesville. As you walked the center aisle during the processional this morning to the sound of the organ playing Pomp and Circumstance, you passed a milestone in your human development. You have crossed over this morning from the land of childhood into the land of young adulthood. As you enter young adulthood you will likely find yourself in another congregation, or perhaps for a time, not active in weekly worship. Even so, the roots of faith have been rooted deep within your souls and you will return to worship in the congregation of your choice in due time.

Jesus answered his critics who wanted him to tell them he was the Messiah, saying, 'I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

Along the way in our journey, we will face opposition. Some people will want to influence or control our speech and behavior. Such people and situations call for us to exercise the gift of discernment. Some people we meet will have chosen not to belong to God's covenant family, and we respect these people too, even as we learn to guard our heart. We may experience seasons of doubt in God and ourselves and if we do I hope our parents or family and friends will have enough faith in us to give us time and space to find our way through our doubts. If so, we will come out on the other side with an even greater faith in God and a more secure foundation in Christ.

Throughout the times of struggle and conquest, learn to listen for the voice of the good shepherd amidst the din of doubt and diversity. Learn to hear the voice of Jesus in your own conscience. Learn to listen to the still small voice from within. There is no doubt in my mind that God dwells inside each one of you. Learn the language of silence which is God's first language. Learn a spiritual practice such as centering prayer that teaches you how to communicate with God on the level of spiritual communication. As you learn that language you will learn that there is nowhere you can go where God is not already there. There is nothing you can say that God has not heard before. There is nothing you can do that God will not forgive and redeem. You are, in an ultimate and eternal sense, safe. You are safe in God's heart because God is securely situated in your heart. Jesus says about you what he said about his original disciples: "I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand."

Jesus said: "The Father and I are one." As we get to know God better, especially through a practice such as centering prayer, we learn that Christ is one with God and we are one with Christ therefore we are one with God. This revelation transforms our lives and causes us to reconsider our priorities. No longer will getting ahead be our primary motivation. Now we are satisfied to rest in God. That rest will recharge our spiritual batteries and propel us into the depths of greater service of God and all people.

As we grow older we will learn the truth that we are one with God. We learn that the kingdom of heaven is not something up there or after we die. The kingdom of heaven is here and now. We learn this when we discover the power of now. The lesson we need to learn is how to live in the present moment. Then we will find ourselves living in heaven on this earth and we will be very happy indeed.

The oil in the Hanukah candles is a metaphor for the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through millennia of trials and tribulations. Persevearance is the key to spiritual growth throughout our adult lives. The Christian journey continues every day that we are alive on this earth and it continues even after we die. Throughout the ages for the past 2000 years God has guarded and guided Christ's church. We are part of a remarkable heritage. Jesus says about us: "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish."

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not so that passers-by should see it and be reminded of the holiday's miracle. Therefore, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. The lights of Hanukah remind us of our graduating seniors whom we honor this mornig. They have the light of Christ within them. They will share the light of Christ with the world. Our graduating seniors are beautiful lamps full of divine light and we bask in the glow of God's love that you cast upon the world. We send them out into the world as living flames of Christ's love.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

More Than These

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 21:1-19 at Batesville Presbyterian Church on April 22, 2007

Once, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee. This is how he did it: Simon Peter and six other disciples were together. Simon Peter announced, "I'm going fishing."

The rest of them replied, "We're going with you." They went out and got in the boat. They caught nothing that night. When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but they didn't recognize him.

Jesus spoke to them: "Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?"

They answered, "No."

He said, "Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens."

They did what he said. Note the progression here. Before the disciples recognize Jesus they follow his fishing directions. All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren't strong enough to pull it in.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, "It's the Master!" The disciples recognize Jesus after they follow his fishing instructions.

As the story continues we become aware the Jesus is using the fishing incident to teach a deeper lesson. After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" The text doesn't say this but I wonder if Jesus was holding up a piece of fish when he asked Peter, "Do you love me more than these fish?" The fish reminds Peter of his life as a fisherman before he left everything behind to follow Jesus. Peter had discarded many things for Jesus sake. He had left behind his family and his career. Jesus wonders if Simon would like to go back to the life he had know before he met Jesus. Peter responds that he loves Jesus more than anything he has left behind, even more than fish. He is happy he followed Jesus. He would make the same choice again.

Then Jesus has a chore for Peter. If Peter loves Jesus more than these, more than these fish, more than his past life as a fisherman, then Jesus wants Peter to fish for people, to bring people into relationship with Jesus.

Christ is an equal opportunity employer in this regard. Christ extends to each of us the same challenge as he gave to Peter: Become fishers of people! Christ calls disciples to be fishers of people. The purpose of one's faith is to share it, to harvest a catch, to bring others into the net of God's grace. As an old gospel hymn urges: "Bring them in, bring them in."

How do we Presbyterians bring them in? How do we engage in evangelism? How do we share our faith? We share our faith through relationships. We share our faith by inviting others to come and see our church. We share our faith by introducing others to our risen Lord.

A woman was to preach at an African Annual Conference. She was a very bright young woman who had recently receiver her PhD. An African man, who knew fairly good English, was to be her interpreter.

She began her sermon that morning by saying, "I want to talk this morning regarding the relationship of the East and West with special consideration for the psychological and theological implications for Christian Mission."

Many of these words the African interpreter had never heard. He paused for a moment and then turned to the congregation and said, "Mama is glad she is here."

Thankfully, Christ does not call most of us to share our faith with big words and fancy sermons. Christ calls most of us to share our faith through relationships.

We see the relational side of evangelism in the way Christ brings Peter back into the fold. Peter had denied Jesus three times around a charcoal fire in a courtyard near where Jesus' was being interrogated on the night before he was crucified. Now, Jesus addresses Peter in the full light of morning on the beach of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus does not deliver a sermon to Peter on the etiology of ethical behavior towards authority figures. He just shared a down-home breakfast with him and asked him if he loved him more than these fish. That's something we all can do. We can all talk. We can all eat. We can all become fishers of men.

We Presbyterians feel comfortable recommending a restaurant to a friend or family member but we hesitate to recommend our church to them. Evangelism revolves around simple invitations. The reason someone will visit our church for the first time is because we invite them to come. Most of the people who become part of our church do so at the invitation of friends and relatives. Yet we still feel somewhat awkward in extending an invitation to come to church or to meet Jesus. We may believe that such a departure from our usual conversations will strain our friendships.

Yet we Presbyterians have a gift to share with a troubled nation. We have the gift of tolerance and mutual forbearance. We have all kinds in our church. We have people on the left and people on the right of the political issues. Like American society, Presbyterian churches are not in agreement on all the hot button social issues of our day. We sometimes wonder if our church can hang together during these turbulent times. Yet, notice what happens in our gospel story. Jesus tells the disciples, "Bring some of the fish you've just caught." Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore — 153 big fish! And even with all those fish, the net didn't rip. The net didn't rip! One commentator says the part about the net not ripping even with all those fish may suggest that the unity of the early church was maintained even in the face of a diverse and growing company of people. (Texts for preaching. Year C / Charles B. Cousar . . . [et al.]) This story gives us hope for unity amidst diversity in our particular church, in the higher governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for the Christian church at large.

Our church, like America, is a big tent society. We have people of all persuasions in our pews. The diversity of our membership is something to celebrate as Presbyterians. People in our community are hungry to have relationships with people who are like them and with people who are different from them but still treat them with dignity and respect. We know how to make some elbow room in the Presbyterian Church. If we invited people to come, our churches would be growing instead of declining as is in the case in so many of our churches. The fellowship of our church is a gift we can share and it all starts with a simple invitation.

Invite people to come and see what our church is about. How do we invite them? What do you say when you invite someone to church? None of us can promise what a person will come across in our church. We don't want to make promises. Don't say: "Come to worship, and you'll get a lot out of it." Or "Join us for a fellowship dinner, and you'll have a great time." Or "You'll be very welcome in our congregation." Just say, "Come and see for yourself."

Thankfully, you are inviting people and our church is growing. The atmosphere at our recent joint meeting of deacons and elders was very positive. The church officers are excited about the growth in our church. We have experienced growth in numbers and growth in a spirit of fellowship and mission. Attendance is up at services such as the Kirkin' o' the Tartans and our church wide picnics. We have love left over every time we get together and that love is looking for someone to bless. Let's speak to the unchurched friends in our lives and invite them to worship at our church, saying, "Come and see."

The goal of our evangelism is that others may meet our risen Lord. We are learning how to be serious fishers--fishers for people. Take a chance. Invite an unchurched friend or relative to come and see our church. Who knows, with God's help, we might just catch one! We have room in our congregation for all kinds of people. Like the disciples in our story today, Christ challenges us to become fishers for people. Evangelism is part of the package for Christians. As he invited his disciples around the Sea of Galilee, so Jesus invites us, saying, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers for people."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pass the Peace

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 20:19-31

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on April 15, 2007

Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (John 20:21)

Peace is the first word the risen Christ says to his disciples. On Easter Sunday evening, Jesus finds his fearful disciples huddled in a corner, hiding, and says "Peace to you." Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: "Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you." (John 19:20-21 MSG) Jesus gave peace to his disciples and he told them to pass the peace. How we turn our attention this morning to how we pass the peace of Christ to one another, to all God's creatures and to even to the earth.

The Bible tells the story of a broken relationship between God and humankind. The Old Testament tells us how God chose a people, Israel, and made a covenant with them. God kept the covenant. The people broke the covenant. Finally, things got so bad that God was ready to destroy everyone and start over. So God told Noah to take his family and a pair of each of the animals and put them on an ark. God sent a flood over the earth and destroyed all living things not on the ark. There were more animals on the ark than people. God apparently cares more about animals than about evil people. God made a new covenant with Noah's descendants and promised never again to destroy the earth by flood. We learn from the rest of the story that the flood changed God but not humankind. God kept being faithful to God's covenant but God's people kept breaking the deal. Finally, in a move that demonstrated just how completely God loves humankind, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to bridge the gulf that had developed between God and humanity. Jesus came to planet earth as the new Adam. The first Adam perverted the order of nature by trying to be God. Jesus restored order to the chaos by laying down his divinity and taking on the cloak of humanity. Jesus came to heal the gulf between God and humankind.

Now Jesus expects us to follow his lead. We are to pass the peace with one another as Christ has passed the peace to us. The Bible is painfully clear on this issue. Forgiveness is not optional. It is required. The Lord's prayer says, “Forgive us ... as we forgive.” We are to live out the forgiveness of Christ in our human relations. That is not always to do.

Radio talk show host Don Imus was dropped from the NBC lineup this week after some racially disparaging remarks he made in regard to the Rutgers women's basketball players. Imus later apologized about his remarks and the Rutgers women's basketball team, whom he had insulted, agreed to meet with him. The public debate over Imus's remarks continued on throughout the week and ended with Imus being forced out by his employer, CBS. Democratic Presidential Candidate John Edwards said in regard to Imus's remarks: "I believe in forgiveness, I believe in redemption." Other candidates were less forgiving. Jesus sends us out to be peacemakers in our human relationships. Passing the peace means being careful about our language. We pass the peace by speaking in peaceful ways.

It is hard for me to talk about passing the peace without mentioning the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Polls now show the vast majority of Americans want to declare peace in Iraq and bring our troops home. Some political pundits say withdrawal of our troops would mean even more death and chaos in the Middle East. How you view this issue will have bearing on the way you think peace will come in Iraq. Whatever your opinion, work for peace in Iraq as you envision it. Jesus sends us out to be peacemakers in our human relationships. Passing the peace means waging peace. We are to pass the peace to our neighbors both here and afar.

Passing the peace is not limited to human interactions. There is more to passing the peace. Jesus once said: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? " (Matthew 6:26-27 NIV)

Jesus tells us to behold the birds, for lessons about life are in them. Now we can't look at the birds if there are no birds left to look at. Yet, day after day, acres and acres of bird habitats are destroyed in the Amazon rain forests to make room for cow pastures to raise cows so that we Americans can eat fast food hamburgers any time we wish. We acknowledge God's glory by admiring God's works in creation. We mar God's glory when we are unmindful of how our choices effect animal species on this planet that we share. Our stewardship theme last Fall was Noah's Ark. God tells Noah to gather a male and female representative of each animal species and put it on the ark so that the animal species may be preserved. God's command to Noah demonstrates that preservation of animal species is important. God was more concerned about preserving animal species than sinful people. Jesus wants us to pass the peace to the animal kingdom.

Jesus challenges us to pass the peace to the human community, the animal kingdom, and even the earth itself. Jesus sends us out to be peacemakers on behalf of the earth's environment. Part of peacemaking is practicing stewardship of God's creation. Rock star Sheryl Crow is performing this month in "Stop Global Warming College Tour." She started the tour in Texas because it is the state with the highest carbon emissions of any state. She is touring with Laurie David, who produced Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. But the global warming issue is no longer the sole abode of the so-called liberal elite. Add former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the list of former (and possibly future) politicians who are urging action to fight global warming. His forthcoming book, A Contract With the Earth, will present a 10 point plan of "market oriented" policies that will lead to a "bipartisan environmentalism." The book is due in November, around the same time Gingrich said he would decide about a possible presidential race.

Several years from now, China will be emitting more greenhouse gasses than America, and by then, I imagine everyone in the United States will be on the bandwagon against China for ruining the environment of the planet we share in common. Of course, right now the United States is the biggest source of harmful greenhouse gases and the rest of the world looks upon us with the disdain that we will look upon the Chinese when they become the primary polluters. Writer Thomas Friedman says we better our act together as Americans on this issue because billions of people in India and China want to live like we live. They want to own their own cars and have refrigerators in their homes. We Americans pride ourselves on being leaders and if we take the lead on the environment these other nations will likely follow.

It is time now for our government to follow the lead of some of our leading corporations. WalMart is getting in on the action of green technology and so is silicon valley. WalMart has a huge initiative underway to conserve energy because it is good publicity and it also will save them millions of dollars. WalMart is marketing energy saving light bulbs that costs more money on the front end but saves you money in the long run because it lasts longer than conventional light bulbs. The business world is learning that green is as good as gold.

Meanwhile, there are still some who sound like doubting Thomas saying: "Unless I see the evidence for global warming I will not believe." Sometimes we have trouble seeing what we would rather not see. The vast majority of scientists say the argument is over. Global warming is a reality. We must come to terms with it. Listen to what Jesus said to doubting Thomas: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Even if scientists never mentioned our responsibility toward the environment, our Bible repeatedly mentions it.

We Presbyterians pride ourselves on being people of the book, people of the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that God put humans on this earth to take care of the earth, not to destroy it. Stewardship of the earth's resources is a primary chore given by God to humankind. From beginning to end the Bible tells the story of how God charges humankind with being responsible for the care of the earth. The Biblical story of human stewardship starts with the story of Adam and Eve who tended the Garden of Eden. God gave humans charge of the earth not so that we could use it to satisfy our greed. We do not have a blank check from God to do with the earth anything that makes money for the shareholders of companies in which we invest. God expects us demonstrate moderation in all things, including how we use the resources of the planet over which God gave us charge. This is basic, conservative, Biblical stewardship.

Environmentalism is not the provenance of one political party. It is not merely a Progressive or Liberal issue. Today, Conservative Evangelicals are claiming the issue of stewardship of God's creation and embracing environmentalism as one of their new justice issues. They choose to focus on this issue not to be politically correct but because they are people who take the Bible seriously. From the beginning of creation, God tasked humanity with care of the earth. That means, for us, taking care of the environment. Passing the peace from humankind to the environment is part of what it means to be a Christian.

The risen Christ challenges us to pass the peace. We are to pass the peace of Christ from human to human and from the human species to the animal and plant kingdoms. We are to pass the peace to the rivers and oceans, the mountains and soil. We are to pass the peace of Christ to all of creation. This is God's will for us. This is why God put us here. As he said to his disciples after his resurrection, so Jesus says to us, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Let's pass the peace of Christ to other people, to all sentient beings and even to planet earth. The Bible recommends it. Christ requires it. Let's do it. Let's pass the peace.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Quest for Jesus' Bones

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 20:1-18

on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007 at Batesville Presbyterian Church

Where's Waldo? is a hide and seek style game that my children enjoyed playing when they were small children. The game consists of finding Waldo who is hiding somewhere within a crowded background of people and objects. Where's Waldo is a fun game for small children. As adults we play similar games. For instance, we all enjoy playing the where's Jesus game. Now some archaeologists and film makers have made a movie called The Lost Tomb of Jesus that claims to have found the long buried bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a made for TV movie that aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4, 2007. The documentary claims to have found the bones of Jesus in a 2,000-year-old tomb containing 10 boxes of bones. Two millennia ago, the dead were left to decompose in a cave and their bones collected a year later and buried in bone boxes or ossuaries. The movie claims that inscriptions on six of 10 ossuaries found in a single tomb indicate that there is a 1 in 600 chance that bones in the tomb were those of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and a son, along with other family members, a press release said.

Not everyone is convinced the movie makers have found the bones of Jesus. For instance, Professor Kloner of Hebrew University, who oversaw the original archaeological dig 27 years ago, says: "It makes a great story for a TV film, but it's completely impossible. It's nonsense. Since Jesus was from the Galilee area, there is no way he and his relatives would have had a family tomb in Jerusalem." And Hebrew University archaeologist Leah DiSegni said that the names found in the tomb were among the most common names of the day. It would be like finding a tomb with the name "George" on it in the future and people asserting that it must have been the tomb of President George Bush," says DiSegni It's not only the professionals who doubt the movie, an informal survey by the Kansas City Star newspaper found that 73% believed that the Jesus tomb had not been found. Moreover, 73% of the people said their faith would not be effected even if the movie were true. Count me among the 73% whose faith would not be affected if it was definitely proven that the tomb contains the remains of Jesus Christ. 

This movie is the latest participant in a long line of people who have been searching for the bones of Jesus. The quest for Jesus bones started on the first Easter Sunday when Mary Magdalene went to his tomb in a quest for the bones of Jesus. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus' body had been laid. They said to her, "Woman, why do you weep?"

This is where our Western culture is today. We are weeping because we can't find the bones of Jesus. Many of us left behind our pre-rational view of the world when we became adults. We no longer find meaning in playing the "Where's Waldo" game in regard to Jesus. We went to college with a pre-rational faith and met professors who challenged us to move toward the rational level of faith. What so many people fail to understand is that there is a rational level of Christian faith and even a post-rational level of Christian faith. Developmental psychologist James Fowler contributed much to our understanding of the levels of faith development and Ken Wilber has carried the torch even further with books such as A Brief History of Everything. Beyond the "Where's Waldo" pre-rational stage of faith there is the rational level of faith, and there are levels of faith beyond the rational level. Centering prayer is the best spiritual discipline I have found for moving toward the next level of faith consciousness. I invite you all to the centering prayer workshop this Saturday at All Saints Church in Grenada. Come learn the benefits of speding time in the silence and darkness of your own unconscious self.

Mary Magdalene is standing inside a tomb looking for Jesus' bones and she is about to be taken beyond the rational level of faith. She sees someone with her in the tomb and she thinks it must be the gardener who tends to the tombs. "They took my Master," she said, "and I don't know where they put him." After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn't recognize him. Jesus was standing right there in front of her but she didn't see him. Let me reread that line from the Gospel According to John so we don't miss it. This is the key sentence: Jesus was standing right there in front of her but she didn't see him.

Jesus spoke to her, "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?" She was weeping because she couldn't find the bones of Jesus. In fact, Jesus was standing right there in front of her but she couldn't perceive that is was him. Sadly, we have the same problem. We search for Jesus bones in the church, in the sermon, and in the Bible. Yet we can't find Jesus even when he is standing right in front of us. Like Mary Magdalene, we don't expect to see Jesus alive today. We come to church but we don't really expect to meet Jesus. He is standing right there in front of us and we don't recognize him.

When we go home today we can say to our children: "I have seen the Lord!" We have seen the Lord in the feet of the children that came scuttling down the aisle for the children's sermon this morning. We have heard the Lord singing in the sound of your voices singing hymns and from the choir as they sang the anthem. Look around and notice who is sitting beside you, in front and behind you. Look closely at them and you may see Jesus bones. Don't go home weeping because you can't find Jesus. He will be riding with you on your way home. Look at yourself in the mirror and you will see him.According to the Apostle Paul you and I are the body of Christ. We are the bones of Jesus! Look around this sanctuary this morning and you will see the bones of Jesus because we are the body of Christ.

Mary Magdalene is not the only person who has seen the risen Christ. You and I have seen him too on this Easter Sunday! All our lives we have been on a quest to find the bones of Jesus. All this time he was standing right there in front of us and we didn't recognize him. We never expected Jesus would be hiding within the bones of our loved ones, our family, our friends, our neighbors both here and abroad. We never imagined we could look beneath our skin and find the bones of Jesus. Yet we are the bones of Jesus. So let's join Mary Magdalene, saying: "I have seen the Lord." I have seen the Lord today, in you, and you, and me. I have seen the Lord today in all of us, in we. We don't need an ancient ossuary or a movie to help us find the bones of Jesus. For those with eyes to see, he is right here in our very midst today.

So let's do what Mary Magdalene did on Easter Sunday. Let's go tell everyone we know the good news that we have seen the risen Christ. And if tomorrow or the next day you forget what the risen Christ looks like; Or if you begin to doubt that you really saw Jesus here this morning, do this: Go stand in front a mirror and look yourself squarely in the eyes and say, "These are the eyes of the risen Christ!" Recognize in yourself the risen Christ for truly he lives in you. Recognize in others the risen Christ for absolutely he lives in them. Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: "I saw the Master!" And she told them everything he said to her.

Look with the eyes of your heart and see the risen Christ in yourself and others. Go share the good news! We have found the bones of Jesus. All this time they were right in front of our eyes: Hidden beneath the cloak of our skin.

We are the bones of Jesus. So let's use Jesus' bones in our hands to heal the sick. Let's use Jesus' bones in our fingers to feed the hungry. Let's use Jesus bones in our feet to bring good news to the poor. We do these thing because that is what Jesus did with his bones when he walked this earth 2000 years ago; and that is what Jesus wants to do with our bones today. Jesus is counting on us to do these things for him and take care of his business on earth. We are the only bones he has available now. We are the bones of Jesus on earth 2007 years after that first Easter Sunday. Let's use his bones in our bodies to continue his work in the world today. Now we have completed the quest for Jesus bones and discovered a great mystery. We have learned the post-rational truth that we are the bones of Jesus. We are convinced that we are the body of Christ. We pledge to God, to one another, and to ourselves, to live into that truth in the Easter season that spreads before us; for we are the bones of Jesus.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Feast of Victory

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from

Exodus 12:1-14 & 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2007

at Batesville Presbyterian Church

We call it the Last Supper although it was not the last supper. Yes, it was the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before his death on the cross. But he would have other suppers with them after his resurrection. He broke bread with them at Emmaus on Easter evening. He broke bread with doubting Thomas one week after his resurrection. He ate a broiled fish breakfast which he prepared for them on the beach in Galilee.

Over the course of time the so-called Last Supper became memorialized in the ritual we now call The Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper has now become the most practiced religious ritual in the history of humanity. We gather to share the bread and wine in Jesus' name and in his memory. "Do this, in remembrance of me," the celebrant says, quoting Jesus. The Lord's Supper has become thick in the variety of meanings it is able to hold and carry. Most of all, we are grateful that this Lord's Supper ritual is able to carry us, our bodies, souls and spirits, from where we are right now toward more proximate union with God.

The Lord's Supper is flexible enough to handle any tense we throw at it: Past, present or future. The Lord's Supper is not limited to service in the past tense as a memorial of an event that happened on that first Maundy Thursday. Rather, the Lord's Supper also celebrates a future event when God's purpose will be fulfilled in heaven and on earth. Jesus taught us to pray in the present tense saying,"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it in heaven." The Lord's Supper touches us where we are in the present moment and propels us into God's future. In the future tense, the Lord's Supper is a feast of victory that celebrates God's final triumph over the age old nemesis' of humanity: Sin and death. Sin in the sense of separation from God and death understood as the termination of life and subsequent corruption of our physical bodies. The promise of the Lord's Supper in the future tense is that one day we will sit down at a feast of victory in the kingdom of heaven. At the head table will sit the holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When it's time to serve the dinner, Christ himself will serve heavenly bread and wine. That cosmic celebration of the Lord's Supper will be a feast of victory.

The theme of "a feast of victory" is common to both the Lord's Supper and the Jewish Seder. Both the Lord's Supper and the Seder have roots in the Jewish Passover. Our Christian heritage intersects with the Passover. Jesus, himself a Jew, came to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem on the week that we Christians now call Holy Week. The Last Supper occurred during Passover and both the Last Supper and the Passover commemorate a past event when God broke into human history to achieve salvation for God's people. Passover celebrates God breaking into history to save the Jewish people from their slavery in Pharaoh's Egypt. The Lord's Supper celebrates God breaking into human history to achieve salvation for all people.

Whereas our Lord's Supper has roots in the Passover, our Jewish friends have another religious ritual that originated in the Passover. It is called a Seder. The Jewish Seder uses liturgy, food and music to retell the Passover story of how God sent Moses and saved the people of Israel from slavery in Pharaoh's Egypt. Some of our older members have experienced a Seder meal with a Jewish family that once lived in this community. I have participated in two Seders. I once celebrated a seder at the home of a Jewish friend. Most recently, I attended a Seder at Temple Israel synagogue in Memphis last Tuesday night. It was a powerful service in a beautiful setting in their newly remodeled Fellowship Hall. I was surprised to learn Temple Israel has 1850 families who are members of their synagogue. That means there are over 5,000 members of Temple Israel, making it one of the largest Reformed Jewish congregations in the nation. The Xyz group and I had heard the Rabbi of Temple Israel preach at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Service at Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis. I enjoyed visiting Rabbi Greenstein's temple for the seder and was surprised when he introduced me as an honored guest to the Jewish celebrants at the seder.

As I sat at table at the seder with a minister friend and several Jewish folks I noticed the name of the bottle of wine sitting on the table. Thus I said: "Mogen David, named after King David, what an appropriate name for the wine at your Seder!" One of the Jewish men at my table responded, "Yes, mogen means star, so Mogen David means Star of David." My minister friend told me the Mogen David brand of wine had been created by a Jewish man. He named his wine "Mogen David," meaning "Star of David," which is the emblem on the flag of the nation of Israel. So even the brand of wine used at the seder is laden with special significance. Of course, our sacramental wine has a history as well. The so-called wine we use for the Lord's Supper is good old Welch's grape juice. According to the Welch's website, in 1869 Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a physician and dentist by profession, successfully pasteurized Concord grape juice to produce an "unfermented sacramental wine" for fellow parishioners at his church in Vineland, New Jersey, where he served as communion steward. His achievement marked the beginning of the processed fruit juice industry.

We use Hawaain bread for the Lord's Supper and it reminds us of the Last Supper when Jesus broke a piece of bread and passed it to his disciples, saying: "This is my body broken for you." In comparison, Jewish celebrants of the Seder use unleavened bread to remind them of the way their ancestors left Egypt so fast they didn't even have time to add leaven their bread.

One tasty item we enjoyed at the Seder was lamb brisket. A year-old male lamb without blemish is the chief food at the Passover meal. According to the Old Testament, the people are to eat the lamb with their loins girded, sandals on their feet, and their staff in their hand. To gird your loins means to pull up your robes and tuck them into the belt around your waist the way you would if you were about to start walking somewhere. In other words, the people are to eat the Passover fully prepared for a long and arduous journey such as the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that followed the liberation of the Jews from Egypt.

Every year on the day before the Passover begins, a lamb was slaughtered for each Jewish household. At the time of Jesus, in a land where virtually everyone was Jewish, thousands of innocent lambs were killed in preparation for this great and solemn festival. The Gospel according to John reports that Jesus died on the same day when the lambs were butchered. John is the only gospel writer who says early on that when John the Baptizer saw Jesus coming toward him, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Clearly, John's Gospel means to portray Jesus as the Lamb of God who is slaughtered at the time of the Passover, who offers the whole world a new kind of deliverance from slavery to sin and death, a slavery far worse than anything the Israelites experienced in ancient Egypt.

Like God's ancient people in Egypt, we gather at this quickly eaten meal, and know that death has passed us by; its fangs have been removed, its venom neutralized, its bite endured in our place. The story didn't end in Eden, nor in Egypt, nor in the upper room nor at the cross nor in the rock-hewn tomb. This is the feast of victory for our God! Tonight we celebrate it to the sound of chariot wheels clogging in the mud, the sound of water crashing back when it had been divided, and the sound of saints in light dancing on the other side of the river Jordan, celebrating victory.

My wife, Jana, and I were married in her home church, Ascension Lutheran Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Almost every time I worshiped at Ascension Lutheran Church they were serving communion. And every time they served communion they sang a service hymn called This is the Feast of Victory. We are going to sing that hymn after the affirmation of faith. The lyrics of the hymn bring together many elements of the Lord's Supper. The hymn reminds us of connection between the Jewish Passover and our own Lord's Supper's by its reference to Christ as the Lamb that was slain. The last verse of the hymn puts it well: "For the Lamb who was slain has begun His reign."

This is the feast of victory for our God. Christianity is an optimistic religion. We join the Jews in celebrating how God acted in history in saving God's people from slavery in Egypt. Furthermore, our Christian religion is founded on God's action in history in the person of Jesus and the saving work of Christ. The seminal moments of our past give us courage in the present and hope for the future. Finally, we have a vision of the future in which everything that is wrong about the world is ultimately made right. At the feast of victory of our God justice will be served to all creation. God's kingdom will finally come on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Dark Night of the Soul

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 19:28-40
at Batesville Prebyterian Church on Palm Sunday, April 1, 2007

Images of donkey carts and cars run through my mind when I recall looking out the window of a tour bus in Cairo, Egypt. I saw a man riding a small contraption with wheels being pulled along the street by a donkey. Next to him was what appeared to be a family riding in a late model Mercedes Benz. At one point the bus had to stop so a man herding sheep could cross the busy street. The place was bustling with people traveling by foot, donkey cart, and luxury car. Welcome to the post-modern Middle East. Long ago, in another bustling Middle Eastern city named Jerusalem, rode a rabbi named Jesus. His mode of transportation was a donkey. Jesus rode the donkey down the slopes of Mount Olive as hosts of his disciples shouted "Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Like Jesus on Palm Sunday, the people I saw riding donkey carts and Mercedes Benzes on the streets of Cairo in 1994 were people in motion. They were people who were going somewhere. They had not yet arrived at their destination. They were on the way there. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was on the way to the cross, the grave, and God's glorious resurrection. He had not yet arrived at the upper room where he will meet with his disciples on Thursday night for their last supper together. He had not yet arrived at the hill called Golgotha, place of the skull, on the outskirts of Jerusalem but he would get there by Friday. He had not yet arrived inside the enclosed stone tomb where his body would be laid for burial for crucifixion. He had not yet arrived in hell where he would completely identify with human suffering on a cosmic scale. He had not yet arrived at the moment of his resurrection. Jesus is on his way on that morning that we now call Palm Sunday when he rides a donkey into Jerusalem. Jesus was on his way through Holy Week and so are we.

I remember the flight from New York to Amman, Jordan. The President of our seminary, the Rev. Dr. T. Hartley Hall, was traveling with our party of 25 seminary students and 3 seminary professors. President Hall was a short man with a booming voice. When we got settled in the airplane I could tell he was an experienced traveler. After the flight was underway he put on a pair of ear plugs and covered his eyes with a blinder and reclined his seat. Within minutes he was laying with his arms spread out over his head, snoring loudly. President T. Hartley Hall knew how to travel. He was aware of the importance of timing in a long journey such as we had undertaken. He knew the time would come to stare in wonder upon the slab of rock where Jesus is claimed to have been resurrected in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But now was not that time. Now was the time to relax and rest. Timing is important in the spiritual journey as well. We have to learn when to speak and when to remain silent, when to move forward and when to lag behind, when to pray and when to remain silent in God's presence, which is, I believe, the highest form of prayer. I found reassurance in the sleep of President T. Hartley Hall. If he could be so relaxed as to fall asleep and snore his way through the night on that flight from New York City to Amman, Jordan, then maybe I should relax my grip on the magazine I was grasping and trust the Lord to keep us safe and sound on this flight and on this trip.

My fear on that trip was more than merely the fear of flying. It was deeper than that. Whether riding in the bus in the Middle East or flying on an airplane, I was not in control. I was a passenger and someone else was the driver. In a larger sense, that trip to the middle East was frightening to me because I was opening myself to the possibility of change in the way I viewed myself, the world, and my faith. So it was for Christ during holy week. he was not in control, he was not driving events.

Let's travel with Jesus through this Holy Week. Let's stand on the slope on Mount Olive and join his followers shouting: "Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Let's follow Jesus into Jerusalem and stand by his side even when the crowd turns against him. Spirit will be our mode of transportation this week. We will walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. We will be, as Jesus put it, "In the world but not of the world." Holy Week is a spiritual passage and we are on that journey now.

I remember another trip. I took this trip alone. It was a walk I made in Manhattan one Sunday in August when I was 25 years old. The walk began at the Statue of Liberty. There were many people there. A juggler entertained us as we waited in line to climb up into the Statue of Liberty. My turn finally came and I climbed the stairs, one by one, going up to the top of Lady Liberty. Finally, we got to the top and walked around the deck on Lady Liberty's crown. Manhattan shone like a diamond across Hudson Bay. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stood like two giant toothpicks holding together a juicy hor d'oeuvre called the Big Apple. Then I climbed down the Statue of Liberty and made walked up Broadway through Manhattan where I was staying with a friend near Central Park. As the sun came out that Sunday morning it was so hot and humid. The concrete sidewalk and nearly empty streets seemed to intensify the radiant rays of the sun. Even the tall skyscrapers seemed to be heaping heat down on my head. The soles of my feet were burning from the hot pavement. The streets were nearly deserted except for a stray car here or a taxi cab there. I walked alone in silence. Surrounded by intense heat. Such a walk may not have meant much to a young man from Brooklyn, but for a young man from a small town in Mississippi, to walk halfway across Manhattan Island alone on a Sunday morning on a nearly deserted street, it was a turning point in my life. Something clicked. I had achieved some unspoken goal. I was more self confident after that walk than before it. No one saw me do it but to me it was a growing experience.

Jesus walked alone on Good Friday. The Palm Sunday crowd of followers and well wishers were nowhere to be found. Jesus made his way down the Via Dolorosa, carrying a cross up to Golgotha, the hill of the skull. Imagine the heat he felt then. The heat of the accumulated sin, fear, guilt and dread of the human species throughout all history. Jesus must have been hot on that lonely walk. He must have felt the heat of hell summoning him down to where he would willingly go after his death on the cross. He descended into hell, we say in the Apostle's Creed. Jesus was no stranger to suffering. He walked alone when he had to do it. He walked from Pilate's quarters to Golgotha. He had to walk it by himself. As the great spiritual song says, "Nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself."

There comes a time in our lives when we must walk alone. The crowds no longer support us. Our friends provide no consolation. We must walk alone through the valley of the shadow of death. Our family and friends may stand with us during the funeral service but there comes a time when everyone goes back home and we are left alone in the house without our loved one who has died.

I found an interesting book in the Great Hall of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis on my recent trip there with the Xyz Group. We arrived early enough to browse through the bookstore before the preaching service with Rabbi Micah Greenstein. As I browsed the books, I was drawn toward one called The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth . Author Gerald Mays, a psychiatrist and spiritual director, suggests we may experience unseen spiritual growth during those times in our lives when what we were formerly doing no longer bring us any satisfaction. The experience is called "dark night" not because it is evil but because God's presence is obscured. It is hard to see at midnight when the lights are all turned off. During times of spiritual obscurity, when the way before us in unclear, the Spirit may be maturing our faith. Certainly Jesus' solitary walk down the street in the Old City of Jerusalem named Via Dolorosa, the way of grief, was an experience framed by poor vision. He could not see well. His eyes were swollen from the beating he had taken at the hands of the Roman soldiers who mocked him. There was blood and sweat in his eyes from the crown of thorns on his head and the heat of the day that beat down upon him. Surely that solitary walk on Good Friday caused more growth in Christ's faith than the joyous journey on the donkey's back down Mount Olives into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We all long for the celebration of resurrection on Easter Sunday but are less enthralled with the ugly details of Good Friday. Yet good Friday is just as much a part of Holy Week as Palm Sunday and we grow more during the Good Fridays of our lives than we do on the Palm Sundays.

God is inviting us toward greater freedom and love during this holy week. Part of that growth may involve not knowing what God is doing in our lives. God works through obscurity. According to Mays, it is not so much that God does not want us to know what God is doing in our lives. Rather, God is able to lead us further when we do not know where we are going. During the dark night of the soul, during the times when we are unsure where God is or what God is doing in our lives, God may be purifying our soul and cleansing our spirit.

We all long for the clarity of the view of looking down on Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives but the more significant spiritual growth occurs when we walk the Via Dolorosa knowing that at the end of our path lies a cross and that we will be crucified upon it. Holy Week for Christ was an experience of the dark night of the soul. Hear him cry out on the cross in confusion, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Let's take it one day at a time during this Holy Week and fully experience the joy of Palm Sunday and the horror of Good Friday. God suffers with us in the bad times and rejoices with us in the good times. We don't have to be always in control. We can relax in the knowledge that God is leading us onward even when we find no evidence of God's active presence in our lives. During the season in our lives when God's activity seems faint and shadowy, we may be experiencing the liberating power of the dark night of the soul. One thing we know for certain and we take hope in this fact. After every dark night there comes the dawn and after every Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.